I was in third grade when one of our small-town school got its first Apple computer, an AppleII. It was likely one of the first Apple computers available to schools, as far as I can tell. It was probably 1981 or 1982. I could probably look that up, I guess. I am sure that the computer cost a bazillion dollars, either way.
In due course, all of us got a turn on the computer. We typically could do whatever we wanted. Some had significant interest in this new piece of equipment, and some did not. Some likely had computers at home and others had the mini “Pac-man” game that ran on about 19 D batteries. We had that. Well, we didn’t really have that. My step-father’s son–my step-brother– received one from his mother. She saw to it that he had many of the toys that he wanted. There was no reason why we should have been able to play on it.
And sometimes, in the darkened night,
You see the crossroad sign.
One way is the mornin’ light,
You got to make up your mind.
-Dickey Betts, The Allman Brothers Band
Anyway, there was the computer. I gained some practical skill with it very quickly. I could boot it from a 5″ floppy drive and load some programs, learned how to do some basic programming, and I could launch this game where you would type in the names of the states.
The states/capitals game was my specialty. Better than any other, in fact. Don’t know if I can still do it, but just about any state you named I could quickly recite the capital. Even Vermont, which people always seemed to have trouble with. Montpelier. Yea, I knew Montpelier.
For the junior high open house that fall, it only made sense that they would show off the new computer. They would have some contest to see if the computer could count to a million and for how long, they would announce the winner, and my classmates could sign up for some computer time. There were many guesses. Honestly, I don’t remember how long it took, though I did look it up, and the processor on the AppleII was about 1MHZ.
Well, when it came to my turn during the conferences, I decided to purposely try entering the wrong answers. Mostly because I wanted to see what would happen. Also, I wasn’t going to be duped into thinking that there was something magical about this hunk of metal and plastic.
The parents were still trying to figure out how this computer even knew all the answers to these questions.
Well, as luck would have it, I had about 5 different sets of parents behind me when I typed in the capital of Iowa.
“Desasdfghjk;asdfghjk;asdfghjk;asdfghjk;asdfghjk;asdfghjk;asdfghjkMoines”, or something like that.
The old Apple II really didn’t know how to handle that. The screen cleared with an error message, “Break in Line 192”, or something equally innocuous. I thought it was innocuous. It was about to be an early lesson in awareness and how easily one’s actions can be misconstrued.
I heard the disapproval in the room. The tension was thick like a fall morning fog. I was unconcerned. I hit some magical combination of keys that was supposed to reload the program. The teacher had removed the program disk, a 5” floppy from the drive. Now, for those of us old enough to remember what that sounded like, good for you. For me, the sound is etched in my memory. Incidentally, I once heard a cat make that same noise coughing up a hairball.
The grinding noises continued. Then beeping. Then nothing. The screen was blank. To someone who had never seen a computer it was a spectacle.
Then, my teacher, “You just broke the program.”
Between the muttering and gasps behind me. I knew what they were thinking.
“Let me see if I can load it again,” he said.
I hopped up out of the chair. Disks were loaded. In that time, several people had left the classroom before things returned to normal. As I was walking out of the school with my stepfather, one of my parent’s friends had relayed that I had broken the computer. My attempts to defend myself were met with, shall we say, unhappiness.
I was in big trouble. Attempts to explain were met with lecture and I was quickly sent to my room. It was a full-on grounding. There was yelling. I was now the kid that broke the computer. There were phone calls to our house. Someone started a collection.
It wasn’t until the following week when I was escorted to the school to produce some sort of restitution for destroying a priceless piece of equipment that my mother learned that the computer had been repaired.
“Oh, I was able to fix it,” The teacher said. He made it sound worse than it was. My mother didn’t know that this was the early equivalent of an IT guy taking credit for a reboot.
“He can work it off,” She said. I thought momentarily about a life of indentured servitude to my elementary school. It seemed inevitable.
“There’s no need for that,” He said.
I was awaiting her disapproving look. I didn’t have to wait long.
We left, went to the car, and I endured the silent ride home. I was considering an “I told you so” for my mother.